The JBL Reflect Aware headphones show a great deal of promise with their simple but effective battery-free noise cancellation, and their sound is fine as a workout accompaniment; beyond that, however, your mileage may vary.
Battery-free noise cancelling
Strong, powerful bass
Poor sound separation
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Unless you've been living under a rock you'll have heard that Apple has dropped the standard headphone jack on its new iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus handsets, instead pressing the Lightning port into service for audio output in addition to its existing charging and data transfer duties.
Reaction to the move has been mixed, and there are valid points to be made both for and against; but we're not going to get into those now, because we're here to talk about the Lightning-equipped Reflect Aware headphones from JBL, which, wherever you stand on Apple's decision, make a pretty convincing case for the Lightning connector as a headphone jack replacement.
It's hard to talk about the $199.95 (£169 / AU$297) Reflect Aware headphones without addressing the elephant in the room.
Yes, these headphones exclusively use a Lightning connector; yes, this means you can't use them with anything other than an iPhone; and yes, this also means you won't be able to listen to them while you charge your phone, unless you opt to use an adaptor.
However, while currently only the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus ship without a traditional 3.5mm headphone jack, the JBL Reflect Aware headphones can be used with any Apple device equipped with a lightning port.
This means you can use them with any iPhone going back to the iPhone 5, as well as a variety of iPods and iPads.
This gives the Reflect Awares reasonably wide appeal, but the downside is obvious. While you might be using an Apple device now, if you choose to move to Android or another operating system in the future, then as things stand these headphones will be useless – there are currently no adaptors that will enable you to use your headphones on a non-Lightning device.
We should point out that a USB Type C version of these headphones called the JBL Reflect Aware C will also be available soon, which should be compatible with Android smartphones sporting the new USB port.
However this is a separate pair of headphones; there's no option to convert one from the other.
But enough about the negatives – are there actually any benefits to the JBL Reflect Aware's Lightning exclusivity?
Well for one, they're a pair of noise-cancelling headphones that don't need to be charged.
This is because while the 3.5mm jack is very good at transmitting sound, it's less good at transmitting power, and so that needs to be provided from an external source – which is where the Lightning port's multi-functionality comes in.
Noise cancellation on the JBL Reflect Awares is turned on by default, and can be controlled either through a button on the in-line remote, or via JBL's app, which additionally enables you to adjust the exact amount of noise cancellation applied.
This is a nice feature in theory – if you want to maintain more of an awareness of your surroundings while on a runs, for example – but in practice I found myself leaving the noise cancellation set to its maximum level.
The in-line remote is a fairly standard affair. As well as the aforementioned noise cancellation button, it has the standard three buttons for volume and track control.
The buds are your standard sports design. They have a winged tip which helps them to hold better in your ear, and they come with a variety of attachments to enable you to find the perfect fit.
We found the earbuds to be perfectly comfortable once we used the right tips, and they were nice and secure in our ears, although they weren't amazingly comfortable over lengthy listening periods.
The jury's still out on whether the Lightning connector has the ability to deliver better sound than a 3.5mm jack, and as a pair of sports headphones the Reflect Awares are probably not the ones to settle the argument (although if you're interested, our review of the Audeze Sine headphones might provide more illuminating).
It's clear that with the Reflect Aware headphones, JBL's priority has been providing a thunderous bassy sound that's more about providing an accompaniment to your workout than home listening.
Turn to a noisy, busy track like Feeder's Just a Day (a musical guilty pleasure if ever there was one) and the only thing that really has any kick to it is the bass.
Both the bass guitar and the kick drum come through nice and clear, but the rest of the track is muddy and congested; it’s hard to fully discern the guitar track, and the guitars and vocals seem to bleed together.
It's a similar story when we switch to Dressed in Black by Sia, with the track's delicate xylophone melody almost inaudible under the more bassy synth melody.
The noise cancellation itself is pretty decent, but not the best we've ever heard. It's good at eliminating low rumbles, but it's not quite as good at higher frequencies, which are better handled by an over-ear noise-cancelling solution.
For an in-ear pair of headphones, however, the noise cancellation is good enough.
The sound signature works well with a musically simple piece like untitled 02 | 06.23.2014. by Kendrick Lamar, a track which only really needs its beat and vocals to be audible.
Providing noise cancellation functionality without the need for batteries is a game-changer, especially when it comes to the in-ear form factor. The noise cancellation isn't the best around, but it's enough to ease the stress of a noisy plane ride, for example.
The sound itself is simple and bassy, and combined with the snug-fitting eartips and noise cancellation should provide a good accompaniment to a workout.
Since these headphones are so obviously positioned as a pair of sports headphones it's unfair to expect too much out of them in terms of audio performance – and suffice to say these earbuds will not be replacing your everyday headphones.
There's no nuance to the sound, separation is poor, and outside of the bass the audio is generally muddy and messy.
The JBL Reflect Awares are far from perfect, but they have gotten us very excited about the future of Lightning-compatible headphones. They're not terrible as a pair of workout 'phones, and if your budget allows then they're a fine fit for that purpose, although for most they might be a tad on the expensive side.
If you're looking for the most diminutive pair of noise-cancelling headphones around then the JBL Reflect Awares might be a good option, but they do come with a couple of caveats that you need to be aware of.
Jon Porter is the ex-Home Technology Writer for TechRadar. He has also previously written for Practical Photoshop, Trusted Reviews, Inside Higher Ed, Al Bawaba, Gizmodo UK, Genetic Literacy Project, Via Satellite, Real Homes and Plant Services Magazine, and you can now find him writing for The Verge.